Public policy to ramp up design thinking

Maybe this will help.
For some time I have been advocating an approach to innovation and problem solving called “design thinking.” Unfortunately, when you say “design” people (i.e. policymakers) think of ascetic and artful creation — not problem solving. But problem solving is exactly what design thinking is all about (see earlier posting).
So I was very pleased to see today’s New York Times story on design thinking and the Standford D.School (officially the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design): “Solving Problems for Real World, Using Design.”
As the story points out, design thinking is an iterative process based on understanding customer needs. Innovation does not follow the old industrial era linear model where basic research leads to applied research leads to technology development leads to product development lead to product demonstration which finally leads to commercialization. Rather innovation is more like a stew – with various elements — technology, business models, financing, organizational structure, marketing concepts — being combined to create the end product. Design thinking is a method of harnessing that process.
And it works. The story highlights one pair of students who sold the company they developed through the D.School to LinkedIn for $90 million. But that is only one example. As the story notes:

In the eight years since the design school opened, students have churned out dozens of innovative products and start-ups. They have developed original ways to tackle infant mortality, unreliable electricity and malnutrition in the third world, as well as clubfoot, a common congenital deformity that twists a baby’s feet inward and down.

Here is the really hopeful sign: “Sarah Stein Greenberg, a D.school alum and managing director, says she receives inquiries every week from universities looking to mimic the D.school curriculum.”
So let’s give that effort a kickstart. For example, the Obama Administration has proposed a National Network for Manufacturing Innovation with up to 15 Institutes funded at up to $1 billion. At least one of those Institutes should be devoted to manufacturing and design thinking (see earlier posting). The proposal by ITIF to create 20 programs on manufacturing in major universities should be expanded to include at least 5 d.schools (see earlier posting). We already have an NSF program to create and fund Engineering Research Centers (ERCs) in a number of areas; we should create one for design thinking. We should expand the Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), EDA and SBA services to explicitly include design thinking (assistance in indentifying and managing intellectual capital). We have numerous programs to help fund STEM education. How about a few to support design thinking, especially in K-12?
These are but a few places where public policy can promote and support design thinking. With all the focus on “innovation”, maybe we need to get back to what that term really means. Innovation is about solving real problems in the real world. And design thinking is an important way of reaching that goal.

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